There’s a scene somewhere in the middle of Miami Vice where Crockett, feeling some oats, sensibly decides to sow them in the direction of Gong Li. They get on a speedboat and whiz off into the ocean blue. You can tell she’s sweet on him, and when she announces she’s taking him to her hang-outs in Havana — Havana! — for mojitos and dancing and maybe something more, suddenly this hard-boiled cop movie inflates with a sense of romantic wonder and possibility. To get on a boat in Miami, tear away from the shore and bounce across the waves, setting a course for Havana?
I can’t explain, really, why this ordinary notion filled my heart to bursting, nor am I sure why I found this minimalist cop movie so enthralling. The storyline is so threadbare that it barely needs to be described, and maybe that’s one of the things that’s so thrilling about it. The movie in fact thumbs its nose at the very idea of story. Don’t understand what’s going on up there on screen? Just hang on. It’s simpler than you think, and you’ll figure it out. One could-have-been action sequence isn’t even staged. It’s discussed instead in dialogue between our two undercover-agent protagonists and their shady employers, after they’ve recovered a significant haul of stolen dope. The elision is so startling that I sat for a couple of minutes convinced that the projectionist had miscued the reels and I had missed a good 20 minutes of movie. But I realized it barely matters. In the end, Miami Vice is not just a gritty crime drama or a painfully tense non-action movie. It’s also, crucially, a gripping romance — this has more in common with a Wong Kar-wai movie than any Hollywood movie I’ve seen lately.
So what happens? Sonny Crockett and partner Rico Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) are a pair of cool, collected professionals — vice cops, recruited to go undercover after a sting operation coordinated by other agencies goes spectacularly sour. They’re running drugs for a Central American crime lord (Luis Tosar, who looks like a chilly Paul Bartel) in order to get an in with a small-time Florida boss, but as Crockett learns more about the larger organization, he yearns for an extended sojourn undercover with a bigger takedown — and with the benefit of getting to spend time with Isabella (the phenomenally expressive Gong Li) an unlikely kindred spirit who could end up getting him killed. Needless to say, once the jig is up, the personal and the professional get intertwined as the villains hit them hard. Although this sounds strictly routine, the film feels nothing like a TV show — although, in a neat touch that felt kind of old school, the street-level thugs are white supremacists, surely an underused species of villain in a movie age where every other bad guy seems to be a terrorist from the Middle East or a breakaway Russian Republic.
This is Mann’s second movie in a row with cinematographer Dion Beebe — he won the Oscar for dazzling, cinema-of-quality 35mm cinematography on Memoirs of a Geisha — who’s breaking the early rules of digital cinematography by exploring the breaks these new cameras make from film, rather than the ways they’re similar. (Compare this to the rather more traditional look of something like Superman Returns, whose creators briefly considered shooting 65mm before settling on the new digital system from Panavision.) I was ambivalent about the look of Collateral, which had visuals so harsh that the one major sequence shot on film, which took place in a dark jazz club, was like a trickle of cool water down the back of the throat. But in Miami Vice, Beebe seems to have mustered the confidence to go all the way — these are poetic visuals that take a resolute show-don’t-tell approach to narrative. Some of the shots are in so close, or filled with so much painterly static, that they’re almost non-representational in function. (I have to wonder what Stan Brakhage, always a multiplex hound, would have thought of this stuff.)
It’s the details that feel credible, that hold the story together long enough for the performances and camerawork to help the characters take hold. Mann doesn’t go for car chases, or speedboat chases, or even foot chases. Mainly, as in films like Collateral and Heat, his characters talk to each other, mixing sincerity with bravado so the other guy believes they’re the real deal in a shady universe where the fellow applying for a job from you could be angling to rob you blind, kill you, or turn you over to the feds. In important ways, these films are about the relationships between vulnerable tough guys, with a refreshing lack of the chuckleheaded cock-swinging that capsizes many movies that try to deal with the type. (I turned off Running Scared, for example, about 10 minutes in after choking on ersatz testosterone fumes.) And I guess what I really liked is that Miami Vice takes the trajectory of its central romance so seriously, as if Isabella may be the one thing that can save Crockett’s mortal soul. In one of my favorite scenes, Mann shows the story’s big boss, the wonderfully monickered Arcángel de Jesús Montoya, weighing the fact that his middle manager doesn’t trust Crockett and favors killing him against the fact that his confidante and lover Isabella is sleeping with the guy and thinks he’s an asset. The tipping point comes only later, when Montoya learns that they’ve been slow dancing, which fills him with rage. It’s a romantic note in a grim cop drama that is, unexpectedly, full of them.
The real subject of Miami Vice is the hard sensual sheen of cities aglow after dark as viewed by a new breed of movie camera that peers deep into the shadows. It’s the many faces of Gong Li, playing a cool boss’s girl thrown into disarray when the sad-eyed Crockett starts wooing her, and it’s the cool intimacy of watching them fuck their way into a dangerous place, Mann’s camera moving in close and not panning or tilting but pivoting 90 degrees on axis as it studies the texture of their skin. It’s the glow of night-vision cameras tracking one speedboat tucking in behind another to avoid radar detection, like Crockett slipping it into Isabella to get a shot at a long-term contract under cover of darkness — and maybe to light something up inside a heart that’s gone cold from underuse. And finally the film is just about the intimidating, explosive roar of violence, Mann’s tension-and-release methodology giving his heroes just enough time to make sweet love in a shimmering, hard-edged universe full of night before, as they suspect it must, all hell breaks loose.